Whanganui Rugby celebrates their 2023 award winners

By Jared Smith

Even before his Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship record-tying five tries that afternoon,  Alekesio Vakarorogo’s exploits were going to be acknowledged as the best of his team.

The annual 2023 Whanganui Rugby Awards had a little break from tradition as they were held last Saturday evening at the Barracks Sports Bar following Steelform Whanganui’s victory over Horowhenua-Kapiti to complete the round robin, rather than after the conclusion of the season.

The best and fairest for both the representative and club rugby seasons received their prizes, with an increased number of categories as for the first time awards were able to be presented to players and a coach from the WRFU Women’s Club competition.

It was the 30-year-old Vakarorogo who would visit the awards dais the most.

After sharing the 2022 Heartland Player of the Year award with the departed Semi Vodosese, now in the Hawke’s Bay, Vakarorogo went back-to-back as the sole winner in 2023.

Having had an outstanding campaign, especially after his move from winger to centre, the position from which he also won the Premier Club Player of the Year prize, Vakarorogo had stepped up as not only Whanganui’s leading strike weapon, but a hard working defender, distributer and possession-retainer at breakdowns.

Vakarorogo is soft spoken, quietly thanking his family, but coach Jason Hamlin was able to provide the further words of praise.

“He has all the respect of his team-mates and everyone he plays against. He’s a real talent.”

For the Team Member of the Year award, we render unto Caesar the things that are his – ‘Caesar’ being just one of the nicknames bestowed upon Whanganui’s loveable larrikin Peceli Malanicagi.

“He’s the joker, he’s the laugher, but he makes us all happy, and that’s what gets us there in the end,” said Hamlin.

After he was named Emerging Referee recipient last year, Scott Dowman took mantle of Referee of the Year after a memorable season where he extended his officiating to other regions, went ‘viral’ for a hilarious exchange with a mouthy player in a National U85kg game, and took the whistle in the Tasman Tanning Premier Grand Final for the first time.

“To be able to give back to the sport in a different capacity than what you were thinking, is something else.”

Also giving back has been Todd Cowan, who received the Men’s Coach of the Year after winning the Premier title in his debut season as head coach for Waverley Harvesting Border, before carrying on as assistant to both the Summit Electrical Whanganui and Heartland Hurricanes Under 20’s.

“As a coach, referee, manager, physio or whatever, we are all volunteers.

“We like supporting our club – grassroots rugby’s at a turning point, it’s up to us to pick it up in the next couple of years.”

In the Women’s categories, Junior Nepia lifted the Coach of the Year prize after guiding Marist to the inaugural championship.

Kaierau’s fantastic loose forward Hayley Gabriel, who went on to play for both the Taranaki Whio in the Farah Palmer Cup and Chester Plumbing & Bathroom Whanganui in the North Island Heartland Series, was named Women’s Club Player of the Year.

At representative level, another dynamic loose forward in Anahera Hamahona was Whanganui Women’s Player of the Year, to go along with being a co-recipient of the Allan E. Jennings Achievement Award for Outstanding School Leaver, shared with Collegiate’s Tali Ioasa.

Kaierau’s Kyall Green was named Volunteer of the Year.

Allan E Jennings Outstanding School Leavers 2023: Anahera Hamahona and Tali Ioasa.

Whanganui U14 Boys —
Team Member of Year: Christian Alio;
Player of Year: Blake Greenham.

Whanganui U16 Girls –
Team Member of Year: Elizabeth Adrole;
Player of Year: Tamzyn Newland.

Whanganui U16 Boys –
Team Member of Year: Trevaan Marino;
Player of Year: Marika Tukuwasa Delai.

Whanganui U18 Girls –
Team Member of Year: Humaarie Hika;
Player of Year: Cienna Newland.

Whanganui U18 Boys –
Team Member of Year: Harry Rowe;
Player of Year: Monty Sherriff.

Whanganui Under 20 –
Team Member of Year: Jacob Sciascia;
Player of Year: Mitai Hemi.

Whanganui Development XV –
Team Member of Year: Ngapuke Patea;
Player of Year: Emmanuelle Wineera.

Whanganui Women –
Team Member of Year: Waimanaua Potaka-Osborne Whanarere;
Player of Year: Anahera Hamahona.

Whanganui Heartland –
Team Member of Year: Peceli Malanicagi;
Player of Year: Alekesio Vakarorogo.

Emerging Referee 2023: Connor Mear; Referee of Year: Scott Dowman.

Senior Forward:
Sam Sherriff (Utiku Old Boys);

Senior Back:
Wiremu Morgan (Marist Celtic).

Senior Player of the Year:
Wiremu Morgan (Marist Celtic).

Premier Forward:
Doug Horrocks (Kaierau)

Premier Back:
Alekesio Vakarorogo (Border)

Premier Player of the Year:
Alekesio Vakarorogo (Border)

Women’s Forward:
Hayley Gabriel (Kaierau)

Women’s Back:
Paris Munro (Marist)

Women’s Club Player of the Year:
Hayley Gabriel (Kaierau)

Men’s Club Coach of the Year:
Todd Cowan (Border)

Women’s Club Coach of the Year:
Junior Nepia (Marist)

Volunteer of Year:
Kyall Green (Kaierau)

Volunteer certificates:
Junior Nepia (Marist Celtic), Kyall Green (Kaierau), Kelli-Ann Tyson (Marist Celtic), Lowie Harrison (Marton).